Monday, December 27, 2010

The cult of Maria bambina explained

We're in Umbria with the nonni this holiday season. In these parts it's tradition on the feast day of Santo Stefano (Dec. 26), regardless of how nasty the weather, to feast in the afternoon (we had a favorite meal, stuffed pigeon) and then to walk it off, pushing baby carriages to the upper square of a random hilltop town. Here, you usually stumble upon an elaborate presepe (Nativity scene) or even a presepe vivente (a Christmas pageant that continue until the feast of Epiphany). Our chosen destination yesterday evening was Corciano, a lovely little hilltown that ticks all the boxes: quaint, frigid, presepe, and more.

Usually, the presepe is situated in one part of the old town, in a quaintly derelict courtyard done up to look like a stable. In Corciano, all the lanes of the historic center were lined with life-sized presepe figures, including characters I don't remember from the gospels, like the town drunk sleeping one off on a stoop:

When I incredulously asked Xtina who that guy was, she informed me that I was missing the bigger picture. Artists had sculpted these figures, she responded. The implied message is that where I see a drunk, she sees artistic impression, a bit of logic I intend to use back on her some day (or evening).

Where we were both in agreement was the town's big Christmas art exhibit: a fascinating, if not totally creepy collection of 19th Century ceramic and wooden cherubs depicting, of course, the baby Jesus and, naturally, Maria bambina (the baby Mary).

I didn't really question all the limbless, taught cocoons that passed as the Christ child.

I did have to pause though at the young, crowned Christ child seated on his throne in resplendent white robes.

But even the Hasburgian Christ child couldn't compare to the Maria bambina figures, which looked like dolls that a young Diane Arbus might have collected.

If you're not familiar with Maria bambina (the exhibit refers to it as the "culto" or cult of Maria Bambina) story, here's the basics: the Maria bambina has had her devotees for close to a 1,000 years with the veneration of these statuettes becoming a bigger deal from the mid-18th Century. There are stories of the bambina curing infirm nuns and helping couples conceive. Pilgrims still make the journey to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Milan to pray to the miraculous wax image of the infant Mary.

Back to the Corciano exhibit now... where you could see several depictions of Maria bambina, mostly on loan from collections based in Northern Italy and Germany. As such, the baby Mary is a well-fed blonde with an unfortunate haircut, blue eyes and a glazed look, not unlike a young Meg Whitman after a bad perm job. That got rained on.

Now you know the story of Maria bambina.